Editorial: A Blogger’s Biases

bi·as /ˈbīəs/ — prejudice in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

Oxford Dictionary (via Google)

Yesterday, I got into a debate with one of my blog readers on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, who felt that I was being hypocritical for saying that High Fidelity was “doomed” when I was not similarly harsh on Sansar, which also has low user concurrency figures.

She does have a good point (she comes from VRChat, which is demonstrably whooping Sansar’s ass in that department):

Every blogger has his or her own biases, and those biases will shift over time. I will admit that I have a soft spot for the two platforms developed by Linden Lab: Second Life and Sansar. And, I will also admit that my bias towards High Fidelity has swung from positive to negative in the past year. Other bloggers also have their biases, whether they publicly admit them or not. For example, Wagner James Au, of the long-running Second Life blog New World Notes, sometimes seems to have an axe to grind when it comes to Sansar.

Am I being fair to High Fidelity? Well, I guess it all depends on your perspective. Yes, I have been very harsh towards HiFi, because I see them lurching from mistake to mistake, but I am not really saying anything new here; other observers have also criticized High Fidelity. Many current and former HiFi users have told me privately that I am writing about what many of them are thinking. And I will continue to praise the company when I see them doing things that I think are beneficial, like their recent create-an-personalized avatar app for mobile devices, which I think is an excellent idea that I would like to see more social VR platforms and virtual worlds adopt. But yes, overall I do think that the company is in quite serious trouble, and yesterday I used the dreaded D-word: doomed.

Does this mean that I am uncritical of Linden Lab? Nope. I can point to numerous instances in the past where I have been sharply (and, yes, even unfairly) critical of Linden Lab. And I have been similarly critical at times of many other virtual worlds. Because I tend to get accused of bias when I do aim criticism at any particular company, I will refer you to a quote I made when I was accused of bashing Sansar by criticizing its too-early launch on Steam:

I want to stress that this is only one person’s opinion, not an official Sansar spokesperson’s point of view. I still remain a strong Sansar supporter, but I would be neglecting my duties as an independent social VR/virtual worlds blogger if I simply posted nothing but “good news” about Sansar, as some people want me to do.

And the exact same sentiment applies to any other platform I write about on this blog. I visit and enjoy many different social VR/virtual worlds, and I have made some great friends and had some wonderful experiences everywhere I go, but I am not simply going to be a cheerleader for any platform; I want to be able to report both the positive and negative sides of all the social VR platforms and virtual worlds I blog about.

So, why do I think that Sansar is not doomed? The various sources of Sansar user concurrency stats, while still low compared to rival platforms like VRChat and Rec Room, are showing promising signs of growth. This is also borne out by a definite increase in the number of people joining and participating in the official Sansar Discord. Sansar is clearly attracting new people. While that pace of user growth might still disappointing to Linden Lab, it is clear to this blogger that Sansar is still doing better overall than High Fidelity.

And yes, I could be wrong. I have often been wrong before. I thought that Virtual Universe would be a success, too, and it failed. I thought that Cryptovoxels would fail, and it has prospered. So, what do I know? I’m just a blogger who spends way, waaay too much time exploring social VR and virtual worlds, and writing about my experiences from my own unique perspective. I have been fortunate to get a bit of attention from my blog, but I am far from a seer. Nobody can predict the future.

And I make you this promise: if I do fuck up—and I tend to fuck up quite often, both in real life and in virtual worlds—I will admit it (especially if I am called out on it, as I was yesterday), own it, apologize, and move on. That’s the best and surest way to learn and grow.

Sometimes, I will push back, and argue my stance on certain issues if I still think I am right. And, right now, I will forcefully argue that Sansar is destined to succeed, although I suspect it will take many years for that to happen. Ebbe Altberg and his team at Linden Lab are very wisely playing the long game: slowly and methodically building a next-generation virtual world that might, someday, surpass Second Life in popularity (even in the face of potential behemoths like Facebook Horizon). We’ll see if that prediction comes to pass or not.

Advertisements

Editorial: Why I Think High Fidelity is Doomed

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? More details here


Look, I realize that I have been exceptionally cranky lately when it comes to High Fidelity. The company is just trying so hard to make its remote teamwork social VR platform a thing, but, sweet minty Jesus, I think they are failing (and flailing) big time.

I follow the High Fidelity corporate Twitter account, and this morning, somebody posted the following tweet:

Clicking through takes you to the High Fidelity Marketplace, where you can pick up Piper Peppercorn’s virtual coffee mug for 25 HFC (High Fidelity Coin):

So, the thinking here is something along the lines of: “Hey, we want to get people visiting and using High Fidelity, so I have an idea! Let’s promote various items from the Marketplace on Twitter! Somebody will want that coffee mug so much, that they will:

  • download and install the High Fidelity client software;
  • create an avatar;
  • MAKE AN APPOINTMENT TO VISIT THE BANK to get some HFC;
  • go shopping on the High Fidelity Marketplace and buy that coffee mug.”

I’m sorry, but that is a completely insane expectation. Between tweets for various objects for sale like this coffee mug and a scarf (yes, a scarf!), and numerous generic tweets about the joys and benefits of remote working, I am seriously starting to wonder what the hell is going on:

High Fidelity should stop trying to promote remote teamwork in general, and start focusing squarely on selling their platform. They are not going to convince any company to try using remote workers through these ineffective tweets. If they think this will actually make any sort of difference with executive decision makers, they are sadly mistaken.

The virtual coworking island cam fiasco is a perfect example of a company seemingly completely adrift, without any clear indication that they know what to do, or how to market themselves. It took two days—two days—for the company to even notice that its livestreams had no audio. And the livestreams hardly showed off the platform in its best light, even though they have some innovative product features such as spatialized audio. Nobody is going to watch these videos and think, “Hey, this is cool! I want this for my business!”

High Fidelity is one of the clients of a professional PR company, called Firebrand Communications; do they not listen to their advice at all? Or is this the best advice they are being given at this point? (One blog reader astutely pointed out that any good PR company would be monitoring mentions of their clients on social media and blogs, and stepping in when somebody posts highly critical, deeply negative blogposts like I have written about High Fidelity recently. That’s what PR companies do.)

High Fidelity is a sinking ship, and it just breaks my heart. I’m just going to come right out and say this: I now believe that the company is doomed. Their user forums are a virtual ghost town (nobody has posted anything for a week now, a troubling sign). Many people, like Jason Moore of the MetMovie Project, have abandoned HiFi for other social VR platforms. You load up the HiFi client and visit, and except for a few events like the weekly salon hosted by DrFran, the platform is empty.

High Fidelity is a case that should be studied at university business schools of how not to treat your existing userbase, and how not to promote yourself to try and get new customers. High Fidelity desperately needs help, particularly when it comes to marketing and public relations, and I’m not sure that they are going to get that help before they run out of the millions of dollars of venture capital they received, and simply close up shop.

So, what do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below or, as always, you are welcome to join the freewheeling conversations, arguments, and debates about social VR and virtual worlds taking place on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, the first cross-worlds discussion forum! We’d love to see you there.

Sansar Avatar Clothing: Are We Going to See a Repeat of What Happened in Second Life, With Designers Having to Create Separate Versions for Multiple Brands of Mesh Avatar Bodies?

This red ballgown by Nicky Ree Designs is all system layer clothing with a flexiprim skirt, worn on a classic, system avatar with a Catwa Bento mesh head and Slink hands. Bakes on Mesh now allows you to wear this outfit on a fully mesh avatar like Maitreya Lara.

In the early, pre-mesh days of Second Life (before 2011), avatar clothing designers had it pretty easy. All clothing for the classic, system avatars was applied on overlapping layers, with extra prims for features like sleeves and collars and flexiprims to simulate flowing clothing like skirts and cloaks. It was simple, everybody knew how to use it, and best of all, it worked with any combination of avatar body sliders: fat, thin, muscular, short, tall…

When mesh clothing started to make an appearance, around 2011, it was still mostly designed for classic, system avatars. With the addition of an alpha which removed the parts of your body covered by the outfit, it still worked well. Clothing creators pretty much adhered to the agreed-upon five “standard sizes” for classic avatars, which meant that if your avatar was one of these five sizes (i.e. adjusted to fit a specific predefined set of body slider numbers), your clothing pretty much fit you perfectly. A more complicated system, but still fairly easy to understand and use.

However, with the advent of mesh avatar bodies, avatar fashion designers faced a much more daunting task. Clothing makers now had to learn how to rig their outfits for an ever-growing, seemingly endless number of mesh bodies. Even worse, clothing rigged for a specific mesh body might not work with a different mesh body!

Strawberry Singh used to run an annual mesh body parts survey, and the results of the 2018 survey showed the most popular options at that time:

Women’s Mesh Bodies

  • Maitreya Lara
  • Belleza Freya, Isis, and Venus
  • Slink Physique and Hourglass
  • Abar eBody Classic and Curvy
  • Tonic Fine and Curvy
  • Altamura
  • Kemono
  • V-Tech for Maitreya
  • Ocacin Standard and Voluptuous

Men’s Mesh Bodies

  • Belleza Jake
  • Singature Gianni and Geralt
  • Slink Physique
  • EXMACHINA Davide
  • Altamura

That’s a whopping 15 options for women and 6 for men! Most avatar fashion designers decided to deal with this situation by restricting the mesh bodies that they would design for.

In most cases, for women’s clothing, this has meant rigging for only six of the most popular mesh bodies:

  • Maitreya Lara
  • Belleza Freya
  • Belleza Isis
  • Belleza Venus
  • Slink Physique
  • Slink Hourglass

(An increasing number of designers are now also creating clothing to fit the new Legacy avatar by The Mesh Project, in come cases dropping one of the “top Six” mesh bodies listed above to incorporate it.)

Obviously, this situation in Second Life is far from ideal, either for creators or consumers. Newer mesh body creators like Altamura must feel like they’re bashing their head against a brick wall trying to get designers to create clothing specifically for their bodies.

Linden Lab wants to avoid this nightmare in Sansar, by eventually releasing a completely adjustable human(oid) avatar on which all Marvelous-Designer-created clothing will fit. However, at a recent in-world Product Meetup, it was revealed that Marvelous Designer clothing is limited in how much it can be adjusted. For example, while it can be easily scaled (resized), it will not be possible to make just the sleeves of shirts or just the legs of pants longer, for example.

At the moment, we are all in an uncomfortable interim situation with human avatars in Sansar, waiting for the full body deformation capabilities that Linden Lab tells us is coming within the next 4-6 months.

In the meantime, we are already beginning to see some Sansar avatar fashion designers start to make multiple versions of clothing for different popular custom avatars (which are non-adjustable/static), like this Harley Quinn outfit from Daisy Winthorpe:

In addition to a version for the new Avatar 2.0 female body, Daisy has released versions for Fabeeo Breen’s Daphne custom avatar and Cora’s line of Alina custom avatars:

Frankly, until Linden Lab releases the final version of its human avatars with full body deformation features, I am reluctant to buy any clothing from the Sansar Store. There is also going to be a trial-and-error period where we figure out what works and what doesn’t with these upcoming avatars. Hopefully, incorporating Marvelous Designer clothing will still prove to be a satisfactory solution for most people.

Linden Lab is working hard to try and save avatar clothing designers from the problems that have occurred in Second Life with multiple competing brands of mesh bodies. However, it might still happen that we will see the same problems happen all over again in Sansar. Only time will tell. Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.

UPDATED! Editorial: Facebook Horizon Will Require an Account on the Facebook Social Network

You might look like a cartoon, but Facebook still wants
you to back that up with your real-life name and details.

Ian Hamilton wrote an article for UploadVR about Facebook Horizon, dated Oct. 1st, 2019, which finally confirmed my worst fear about Facebook’s new social VR platform: that you will indeed be required to link to your account on the Facebook social network in order to use it.

Titled OC6: Facebook Horizon’s Social Future Built Around Real Identity And Blocking People, Ian writes:

At Facebook’s Oculus Connect 6 VR developer’s conference I tried an early version of the company’s unified social networking space “Horizon” that’s coming in early 2020.

The intent in Horizon is to build a shared network of virtual spaces with games, physics and interactions not possible in the real world. If Horizon sounds like Rec Room, VRChat or AltspaceVR that is because it is like Rec Room, VRChat or AltspaceVR — except Horizon requires your Facebook account. The first thing Facebook showed me was how to block people who bother me. As memory serves, the button was available near my wrist and when I pressed it I saw some options for what do with the report that looked very Facebook-esque.

“You still will use your Oculus ID,” said Meaghan Fitzgerald, head of product marketing for AR/VR content at Facebook. “Your name in Horizon is your Oculus identity, but we do require a linked Facebook account and that lets us do some great things around both safety – making sure it’s backed by a real person – but also for the people who want to invite more of their social network from their Facebook world into their VR environment. [With Facebook integration] they have better tools to do that – they can share out to groups and communities. But it is a Facebook product and we want to take advantage of the social features that Facebook has built as we’re thinking this through.”

Facebook’s terms say “you cannot use Facebook if…you are under 13 years old.” Where other social services, like Rec Room, let you get online and playing with other people without even registering a real email address, Facebook is going to back its social service with Facebook’s policy which demands accounts operated by people who “use the same name that you use in everyday life” and are asked to “provide accurate information about yourself.”

So, as expected, at some point I am going to have provide Facebook Horizon with a my newly re-established (but still empty) Facebook social network account, in addition to my Oculus account, linking all the information that Facebook has on me together. While Facebook is certainly well within its rights to ask this, it does make me uneasy, especially given the privacy and data security scandals of the recent past on their social network (not least, the Cambridge Analytica fiasco where Facebook data was weaponized and used against us to, among other things, help Donald Trump get elected).

Facebook (the social network) makes billions of dollars every year, mostly from targeted digital advertisements based on the user data you provide: your photos, your messages, your likes and dislikes, etc. How all this marketing data will carry over into Facebook Horizon, and how it will be used, is a big question. At this point, we don’t know the details.

But in order to do this marketing and reap its anticipated profits from this new social VR platform, Facebook has to know who you are. And this is not going to sit right with earlier generations of virtual world users, who are used to hiding behind a different avatar name, and an identity and appearance that are created from scratch, and which may have absolutely nothing in common with the person behind the keyboard.

These issues are certainly not new, and they are not limited to social VR platforms and virtual worlds. For example, there was a great deal of controversy over the fact that Google expected users to register for its then-new Google+ social network using their real-life first and last names. There was a great deal of push-back from many Google+ users about the need for people to be anonymous or to use handles or pseudonyms. One example given where such anonymity would be necessary is someone who is fleeing a domestic abuse situation, and who wishes to avoid becoming the target of stalking. This issue was never really satisfactorily laid to rest before Google+ finally shuttered its doors in its failed bid to become the next Facebook.

And, of course, Facebook has long discouraged users of its social network from using pseudonyms, anonymous names, or avatar names. There have been many stories of people who set up Facebook accounts under their Second Life avatar names, only to find them later disabled and removed by Facebook. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes wrote back in 2011:

Facebook is reportedly deleting numerous profiles of Second Life avatars on the social network. Among them is Angie Mornington, a well-known personality in SL, who recently received an email from The Facebook Platform Team, informing her that “Your personal account was recently disabled by Facebook.” The message included a link, Ms. Mornington told me, and after clicking it, “I wound up at a page that said that in order to restore my account, I have to scan and upload a government ID showing my real name and photo, with everything else blacked out (social security number, address, etc.) I refuse to do that.”

At the moment, however, there doesn’t seem to be a thorough or systematic purging of Second Life avatars — at least not yet. Over the weekend, I lost about a hundred friends on my own Facebook network, presumably avatars, but I still have hundreds of Facebook friends who are avatars. In any case, it does appear to be a substantial purge, and comes two years after a Facebook rep told me that while the social network requires accounts based on real names and/or identities, “[t]he vast majority of fake accounts on which we take action have been reported to us by other users.” So it’s possible that any purge is actually being driven by a rash of users filing reports against avatar-based accounts. Or perhaps Facebook is becoming more stringent about its policies in the run-up to their IPO.

Not only does Facebook expect you to present as your real-world self in Facebook Horizon (your real name, your personal details, your social contacts, etc.), it would appear that the company wishes to eventually move towards a point where you would even look like your real-world self as much as possible, too, although that technology is still many, many years away from implementation. Ian Hamilton writes:

It is worth noting that while Horizon features expressive cartoon-like avatars for launch, Facebook teams are hard at work on ultra-realistic human representations they call “codec avatars” that could ultimately be tied to your real world identity in the same way Horizon will be. Codec avatars are still years away and they’ll likely require a new generation of VR headsets to work, but the same way your iPhone or Android phone authenticates its operator using biometric signals, future VR headsets may authenticate the user in hopes of establishing trust and security online.

In short, Facebook does not seem to want you to be anybody but your real-life, easily-identifiable, easy-to-market-to self on Facebook Horizon.

What this means is that there is still a significant market opportunity for any social VR platform or virtual world which allows and even encourages you to make your own avatar, completely constructed from the fabric of your own imagination and creativity (including a customized, anonymous name and detailed backstory to match, if you wish to engage in roleplay). A virtual self-representation that has absolutely no links to the real-life you. People want that. People need that escape from reality.

It will be very interesting to see how Facebook Horizon deals with these kinds of challenges when they launch early next year. More and more, it sounds as if Facebook Horizon is going to be a super-hyped-up version of Facebook Spaces where avatars can finally move around freely. If that’s all it will be—yet another opportunity for Facebook to strip-mine our user data and social networks for profit—then I for one will be especially disappointed.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

UPDATE Oct. 6th: We’re talking about VRChat vis-à-vis Facebook Horizon over on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server, and I said the following to add to that particular discussion:

Facebook still has the potential to dominate the social VR marketplace and crush competitors. The fact that they are insistent on you linking your account on the Facebook social network to your avatar in Facebook Horizon means that they will NOT attract users who wish to have an avatar completely separate from their real life, which means that it is a market opportunity for other platforms like VRChat to occupy. I don’t think that many people in VRChat will want to give up their custom avatars for a boring, generic human avatar in Facebook Horizon.

And frankly, Facebook is not going after that market. Their intended market is the 2 billion+ people who already are on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, to entice them into social VR. And you can bet that Facebook will advertise the hell of out Horizon. It’s all you’re going to hear about in 2020. And for the average, non-geeky end consumer, Facebook Horizon WILL be their first experience with social VR.